From selling razors and shampoo to healthcare: The marketing journey of Trinity Health's Julie Spencer Washington

In her days at Procter & Gamble, marketing leader Julie Spencer Washington learned that the "consumer is the boss." In healthcare, the consumer is the patient. And at Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health, that patient's name is "Amelia."

"How do we bring the voice of 'Amelia' to every meeting?" said Ms. Spencer Washington, the health system's senior vice president and chief marketing, communications and experience officer. "How would 'Amelia' feel as she heard this conversation? What is it we're forgetting to do? What are the pain points or barriers that make her experience less optimal? Have we really talked about what she wants us to talk about, or did we talk about what was convenient or on the agenda?"

Ms. Spencer Washington brought that consumer-focused approach to healthcare from a long career leading marketing for such companies as Jamba Juice, Luxottica Retail and Nestlé Purina. She now aims to anticipate patients' needs at one of the nation's largest Catholic nonprofit health systems, with $21.5 billion in annual revenue and nearly 90 hospitals across 26 states.

In her three-plus years there, she's particularly proud of the national brand campaign — "We See All of You" — that united Trinity Health Michigan, Trinity Health of New England and Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic under one umbrella organization.

"That's not a small lift," she told Becker's. "It wasn't an advertising campaign. It was a bringing together of a multitude of people that needed to sunset what they were saying locally, to take on the national brand, and for it to represent not just the three of them, but the complete system."

She also felt an accomplishment from swapping customer relationship management vendors in just four months, which she calls "warp speed from my experience."

Not like selling shampoo, razors

But Ms. Spencer Washington has also had to acknowledge where healthcare is markedly different from her past jobs.

"The patient journey has a lot of touch points. It's very long, right?" she said. "You start with making an appointment, or better yet, you start just trying to figure out what that tickle in your throat is, and you start that Google search, and go all the way to seeing a doctor for primary care or even going to a specialist to have surgery, to paying the bill.

"The journey is much longer than going into Kroger or Costco to buy a product and asking, 'Did it perform?' It's not as transactional. It's very relational."

Consumer expectations have also grown, she noted. Patients want a "self-checkout" experience like you get at the grocery store. Speed, convenience and "concierge service" are paramount.

She's found breeding loyalty to be trickier for a health system brand than, say, Gillette razors or Pantene shampoo. Payers often dictate where people get treatment. Patients will go wherever is closest or open. Younger Americans are less likely to have primary care physicians.

"Healthcare has just been slow. Just think about where we are with EHRs or pick a thing. We've been late bringing aboard things that other industries have already incorporated or are moving to the 4.0 version," she said. "I've tried to bring that greater urgency and responsiveness. The consumer isn't waiting for us. They want us to anticipate and start building the solution before they ask you for it. So we're playing catch-up, but I'm trying to move this big old Titanic in the water a little bit faster. But it's a big ship."

She said she's always dealt with budget constraints but in healthcare it's "amplified" because "every dollar is important."

Technology is a huge part of her job nowadays. It goes beyond EHRs and patient portals like Epic's MyChart to follow-up surveys and online scheduling and virtual appointments.

Driving diversity through marketing

Ms. Spencer Washington has also had a big focus on multicultural marketing.

"How do we drive, in healthcare, an improved understanding of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion)?" she said. "We talk about health equity, but how does marketing play a part in that? Even to the vendors and agencies we have, how diverse are they? Not just the talent that I have in the ad, but who's actually getting the money? And then as a media buy, where am I spending my money to reach the people that look like the people that are in our communities?"

In the future, she expects personalization to be key for successful health systems. Think about how you used to keep a paper grocery list and now you ask Amazon's Alexa to order something and it shows up at your door.

"Some smart scientists are going to help us connect the dots to know that you, the person that went to the doctor, are the same person that actually filled out the survey, that actually used the Visa card, and now I know your story. And when I know your story, I can say, 'I see all of you,'" she said. "Beyond the world of cookies, I'm actually going to know your actions, your behaviors and your thoughts, even around what you prefer and what you don't like, and therefore I can be better about how I show up in your life.

"Our vision is to be 'your most trusted health partner for life.' Well, you're not partnering with me if I talk to you too often or not enough or don't give you what you need in the way you need it. It's going to get that granular, and it's going to be all about individuals. I can't in my mind figure out how to do that when you don't have a massive team, but there's technology somewhere that's going to enable all this."

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